Up to 15 dead after fire and blast at Texas fertilizer plant
A person looks on as emergency workers fight a house fire after a near by fertilizer plant exploded Wednesday, April 17, 2013, in West, Texas. AP photoAn explosion tore through a fertilizer plant and leveled dozens of homes in a small Texas town late on Wednesday, killing up to 15 people, injuring more than 160 and spewing toxic fumes that forced the evacuation of half the community.
Police said between five and 15 people were killed in the explosion in West, a town of about 2,800 people some 80 miles (130 km) south of Dallas.
"I've never seen anything like this," McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara said. "It looks like a war zone with all the debris."
The blast, triggered by a fire at the West Fertilizer Co. plant, was reported at about 8 p.m. CDT (0100 GMT on Thursday) in West.
The cause of the fire was unknown, officials said. Waco police Sergeant W. Patrick Swanton said investigators would examine whether the blaze was the result of criminal activity or the result of a chemical reaction.
Earlier, West Mayor Tommy Muska told Reuters that five or six volunteer firefighters who were among the first on the scene were missing.
Firefighters had been battling the fire and evacuating nearby residences and a nursing home for about 50 minutes before the blast occurred.
Officials said flames that continued to smolder inside the plant posed two threats - the possibility of setting off further explosions and the emission of hazardous fumes into the town.
Swanton said a residual fire burning underneath additional chemical tanks had been brought under control "and I don't think that is any longer a threat".
Texas Public Safety Department spokesman D.L. Wilson said about half the town, about eight to 10 blocks, had been evacuated and that "we might even have to evacuate on the other side of town" if winds shifted.
Fertilize plant explosion video
The following video was captured by an amateur camera and was uploaded on Youtube today, after the fertilizer plant explosion. At first it shows the plant on fire, then its sudden explosion:
A man on the scene reported that "the restroom is severely damaged we have many people down." Firefighters also said they were setting up a triage unit at an apartment building where people were trapped.
The explosion at the West Fertilizer plant occurred just before 8:00 pm (0100 GMT), Waco Assistant Fire Chief Don Yeager told AFP by phone. The cause was not immediately known but he said it was a anhydrous ammonia explosion.
Fire departments from nearby jurisdictions rushed to the scene in the small town of West, north of Waco, where the blast was so powerful that it knocked down some nearby buildings, and set fire to others.
"An explosion has ignited adjacent structures to the plant," Yeager said.
The injured were being rushed to local hospitals.
Neighbors told local media that their windows were blown out by the force of the explosion.
"It was a small fire and then water got sprayed the ammonia nitrate, and it exploded just like the Oklahoma City bomb," Jason Shelton, a clerk at the Czech Best Western Hotel in West, told The Dallas Morning News. "I live about a thousand feet (300 meters) from it and it blew my screen door off and my back windows. There's houses leveled that were right next to it. We've got people injured and possibly dead." The Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 claimed 168 lives.
Bill Bohannan, who was visiting his parents in West, near the plant, witnessed the explosion.
"It knocked us into the car... Every house within about four blocks is blown apart," he told the Waco Tribune-Herald.
Crystal Anthony told the paper that a nearby nursing home, apartment complex and West Middle School had also caught fire. Anthony said she and her daughter were almost knocked down several blocks from the explosion.
"We've been moving patients out of the nursing home and taking them to the football field and gymnastics building on Davis Street," she added.
April 19 will be the 20th anniversary of the Waco siege, a deadly confrontation between federal authorities and heavily armed locals there. After a 51-day standoff, a gun battle broke out with US agents and the Branch Davidian religious group's compound burned.
Dozens of people were killed in an incident that many far-right groups see as a symbol of egregious US government overreach.